The next round of European Championship Qualifiers is soon upon us, with some of the groups playing their final fixtures. Currently some the biggest names in international football are in the precarious position of failing to secure a spot in next summer’s ‘extravaganza’ in Austria and Switzerland. Lets look at how the events could pan out…
Poland are seemingly repeating their old trick. Forever world-beaters when it comes to qualification, but the question remains whether they can produce such performances in the actual tournaments. Recent history suggests not. They top the group and with a home game to Kazakhstan to come, they must be quietly confident of progression. Finland may have been unfancied prior to their campaign, but have built some steady success due to an impressive defence. It remains to be seen whether they can complete qualification at the expense of the likes of Portugal though.
They face the toughest test with an away fixture in Belgium. The Belgians are hardly the force of years gone by, however, and are currently suffering a dearth of promising young talent. Finland are well capable of going there and taking all 3 points, but unfortunately for them results have to swing their way. Portugal’s campaign has been mixed at best, suffering from an inability to turn domination into victories (5 draws). Both Serbia and Portugal have games in hand against meagre opponents, but the 1 point advantage that Portugal holds over the Serbians should be enough to take them through.
Scotland’s double-whammy over France has blown this group wide open, yet the cynics will still point to testing remaining fixtures and the realistic possibility that the Scots still won’t have enough to qualify for this years competition. The home game against the Ukraine is a tricky prospect. One can envisage much attacking from the Scotland only to be inevitably picked off on the counter-attack as they leave spaces in behind. Technically gifted players like Tymoshchyuk, Voronin and Vorobey will most certainly be looking to exploit an open style game. The 2nd game for Scotland isn’t exactly an easy one, away in Tblisi. Indeed, the Georgian’s away record is hardly stuff of legend, but always prove to be a difficult force to deal with on their own patch. Then we must not forget the final game at home to Italy! Italy have the easiest run-in and will be mildly confident that they can professionally brush off the likes of the Faroes and Georgia to secure their spot.
The crucial fixture may prove to be France’s intriguing trip to the Ukraine, where in all likelihood nothing less than a victory will suffice. Ukraine as mentioned before are hardly soft touches though, particularly at home, and France will be sufficiently worried about their prospects.
The fact that bitter rivals Greece and Turkey both occupy the top positions in the group with games in hand, lends one to suspect that both will be capable of booking their places in Euro 2008. Norway are the only team that can realistically still challenge, although a trip to unpredictable Bosnia hardly inspires confidence. The Bosnians have had an interesting campaign, securing tough victories against Turkey and Norway, but also suffering defeats at home to Hungary and a 4-0 drubbing by Greece. It remains to be seen in the future whether Bosnia can construct a side good enough to qualify.
Top spot should go the Greeks, and despite some early wobbles they have looked a decent side. From the purists’ perspective it is only right and proper that the European Champions have the opportunity to defend their trophy. Certainly they are expected to go well; a midfield containing Karagounis, Katsouranis, Basinas and Giannikopoulos will be one of the strongest ones in the tournament.
It was always going to be a difficult task for Ireland to depose either Germany or the Czech Republic off the top two places, and this was made almost impossible through their abysmal start. Slight improvements have been made, but Steve Staunton’s men have left it a little too late. Germany have continued their impressive form from the World Cup, playing with some stylish attacking verve, and will be looking to remain unbeaten in their final 4 games. Klose and the rejuvenated Kuranyi have posed an awesome partnership, whilst footballer of the year Mario Gomez is kept to the bench. The Germans have even shown a strength in depth. Injuries to Michael Ballack, Tim Borowski and Torsten Frings have been more than compensated for by the arrivals of the likes of Hilbert, Pander and Jansen.
The Czech Republic have once again showed considerable strength, although aside from Germany, this group hardly represents the sternest of tests. Bundesliga stars Jarolim and Galasek have performed well, while Jankulovski and Rozehnal have proved to have a considerable presence at the back. The main problem it seems stems from a profilacy in front of goal. Without big Jan Koller, the options look limited; if Milan Baros is the best answer then that surely is cause for concern. Slovakia has applied themselves well with massive wins against Cyprus and Wales, 6-1 and 5-1 respectively, with a dangerous partnership formed by the Nurnberg duo of Marek Mintal and Robert Vittek.
It should prove to be an exciting final 3 games in group E, with 4 teams still clinging to realistic hopes of qualification. Croatia have a 6 point cushion over 4th placed Israel, which gives them a degree of breathing space, however I’m sure they will fear the away game with England. At the same time, the English won’t be exactly relishing an away trip to Moscow on October 17th, which is potentially the hardest game in the group — and the most vital. The momentum is now with England following their comfortable double of 3-0 victories over Israel and Russia at Wembly, although they will need to show a little more creativity if they are to unpick the Russian defence away from home.
Israel have performed well thus far, including an impressive defensive display to a secure a stalemate with England. Nevertheless, the reality of the situation is that they need to take all 3 points in Zagreb to have any chance of qualification, a feat that is surely only likely with the most fortunate of smash and grab raids. Croatia at the top of the group have been fairly imperious, and are many people’s outside choice as potential winners of the tournament come June. Eduardo has proved himself to be a goalscorer of some repute, while Srna, Rapaic and Corluka provide the side with natural width. The team also seems to possess an ability to be flexible; sometimes adopting wingbacks with 3 central defenders, and on occasion reverting to the tried and trusted 4-4-2.
Sweden top the group and not only have capitalised on Spain’s indifferent form, running out 2-0 winners in the first match-up, but have taken 4 points off of neighbourly rivals Denmark. Toulouse striker Elmander and former Aston Villa failure Allback hardly present the most fearsome of threats in the absence of the legendary Henrik Larsson, however Sweden’s strengths lie in its equally solid and creative midfield. Linderoth, now plying his trade in Turkey with Galatasaray, is at the base of a midfield, allowing more creative forces to shine in the form of Wilhelmsson, Kallstrom, Ljungberg and Svensson.
Northern Ireland has been the pleasant surprise in the group, and of course many of the supporters may have been dreaming of the unlikely prospect of qualification. Away defeats to Latvia and Iceland have brought such hopes crashing to the ground. Indeed, with the next game away to Sweden, it would take the most optimistic of fans to suggest they can return with anything better than a defeat. It has been a great experience for the team though, and the victories over Sweden and Spain will long be remembered by fans of the game.
Denmark will still harbour hopes of qualification, even though they are admittedly slim. They do have a game in hand over Spain however and will be looking for a big performance against them in Copenhagen on October 13th. Spain have been pretty abject by their standards in this campaign, a hangover perhaps from yet another unsatisfactory showing in a major international tournament. Indeed, their plight could have been even worse had it not been for Andres Iniesta’s late winner in the 1st match-up against Iceland, and then saving the Spanish blushes in the 2nd game with a last-gasp equaliser 5 minutes from time. A final mention goes to Latvia, who haven’t showed any the form that took them to Euro 2004; their debut appearance at a major international tournament.
Group G has gone down to a 3-way tussle between Romania, Netherlands and Bulgaria, though the advantage lies with the first two names on the basis of their games in hand. Things are not yet over for the Bulgarians, however, who will be certain that one of the teams will drop points as Romania entertains Netherlands on the 13th October. Bulgaria will have to be clinical in their game if they want to capitalise though; an away game in Albania isn’t the easiest of encounters in international football. We haven’t seen the Romanians feature in last couple of major tournaments, but it seems after the golden age of Dumitrescu, Popescu, Petrescu and Hagi, there is now developing a decent, young attacking outfit. The defence has some experienced and capable individuals; Cosmin Contra (once of AC Milan), Razvan Rat of Shahktar and Cristian Chivu of Inter make an uncompromising threesome. Zica and Dica are both influential in midfield as well as possessing true technical ability, while the talismann that is Adrian Mutu is once again firing for club and country.
The Netherlands won’t relish their away game in Bucharest, and will certainly need a better performance than their last game where they were nearly embarrassed in Tirana; saved by the back-in-favour poacher Van Nistlerooy. A new generation is coming through for the Dutch, but it remains to be seen as to whether they can replicate the style and swagger of the orange-shirts in years gone by. It may be the case that this current crop of players are trading the attacking verve that is characteristic of previous Dutch sides, in for a more restrained style of play; the hope is this will bring the results for the success starved fans.